Food-service experience can illustrate multi-tasking skills

Whether you’re just about to don the black gown and grab your diploma or you’re a workforce veteran looking for a change of scenery, it’s never easy embarking on a job hunt. With the unemployment rate now standing at 9.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the environment is more competitive than ever.  So it’s important to know some simple rules to set you apart from other job-seekers.

Be proactive in your job hunt. Use contacts from past jobs and internships or from your college days to get your foot in the door at places that seem interesting. In addition to traditional job search websites such as Monster.com and Careerbuilder.com, check out Craigslist for open positions. Just keep your eyes peeled for scams and opportunities that look too good to be true. Try to get on mailing lists that alert you to job openings. Within Washington there are several listservs that keep tabs on vacancies in federal government positions and jobs on Capitol Hill.

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After sending out a cover letter and resume, wait at least a week for a response. If you have not heard back from them at this point, send a follow-up e-mail to drive home your interest in the position. If you still don’t get a response, recognize that you may not be what they’re looking for and keep searching for other positions. Don’t get discouraged — rejection is part of the process.

Match your clothing with the company. Standard interview attire for both sexes is a business suit in dark, conservative colors such as black, navy or dark gray. Men are expected to wear a tie and sport coat and facial hair should be neatly groomed. The piercings, tattoos and shaggy hair that you use to express yourself in college will likely need to be removed, covered and neatly trimmed. Certain companies, however, particularly those in communications or marketing, will allow interviewees to display some sort of pizzazz.  And remember to shine your shoes.  Believe me, it makes a difference.

First impressions matter. From the moment you arrive in the lobby, your prospective employer is taking notes on your appearance and demeanor. This Orwellian approach will catch some job-seekers off guard. Just remember to be cordial and professional with each person you encounter at the interview site, from receptionists to security guards. When you finally do meet the person interviewing you, give him or her a firm handshake, look the person in the eye and introduce yourself.

Sell yourself, but don’t exaggerate your resume. Not all resumes are created equal, and neither are prospective employees. If you feel like your related job experience is a little thin compared to the competition, highlight your classroom work. Don’t downplay experience you have in food service or retail jobs, as these demonstrate specific skills employers want. Frame your time waiting tables as an experience working in a time-sensitive environment requiring you to multitask. Stress that the organizations you were involved in in college have taught you teamwork and leadership skills.

No matter how you spin your resume, don’t fabricate information. And if you say you are fluent in a foreign language, be prepared to hold your own if your interviewer wants to have a conversation in it.

So you think the interview went off without a hitch? Don’t sit back and let fate take its course. Send a thank-you note to express your continued interest. It can be enclosed in a document attached to an e-mail, included in the body of an e-mail, or handwritten and mailed via the Postal Service, but the key point is that it reaches the interviewer quickly.

These simple lessons will improve your chances of landing the job of your dreams, or at least one that helps you pay off your student loans. Get started, and good luck.